Choose the Path Less Traveled By, Explore the Trees

The snowpack for Colorado has been incredible so far this season.  With massive terrain openings, there has been more terrain to explore than my legs have been ready for.   What was bare ground a year ago at this time, is a winter wonderland for all to enjoy.  Many resorts are touting opening of the terrain early as ever.  Such examples include Montezuma Bowl at Arapahoe Basin, the imperial lift at Breckenridge, and the back bowls at Vail.

Even the runs through the glades are starting to open up, and it is tempting to venture in search of secret stashes of snow.  When you head from the main runs into the powder stashes,  it’s easy to forget that the snowpack does not have the same consolidation as the runs that are regularly groomed by snow cats.  Depending on the conditions before, during and after the snow has fallen can drastically impact the stability of the snow and the depth you might sink into it.   While this can lead to some exciting turns when the ropes drop, it can also lead to injury or worse.

Unmarked glades between peak 7 and 8 on Breckenridge

The most obvious difference when entering the glade is the trees.  Consider seeking out thinner trees on a lower slope to start and progress towards steeper and tighter trees.  The most important rule is to enter gladed terrain with a friend and, to the best of your ability, try to stay in a visual line of sight of each other by leapfrogging as you progress down the slope.  Since this may not always be possible, it’s good to stay in auditory communication.  In dense trees, spoken words sometimes don’t travel very well.  Consider creating unique “bird calls” that indicate “here I am” or “I need help” that your partner will quickly recognize and can respond to accordingly.  The second rule for navigating through is to look between trees versus at them.  While not looking at trees may seem counter-intuitive, but, in fact, you will naturally head towards where your eyes are leading you.  The second rule is to give trees space, especially if they have branches near the snow. Such a tree can likely have a pocket of very loose snow below called Tree Wells.  These are particularly dangerous if fallen into head first can lead to snow immersion suffocation and are very difficult to self-rescue.

Tree wells galore on Peak 6 Breckenridge

Just before entering the trees, you may see a sign that will indicate that are unmarked obstacles in the run.  These obstacles could be rocks, a tree stump, or downed log covered by the snow.   These “snow snakes” can come out of nowhere and cause you to crash in pretty close quarters.  Before tearing through the gates at full speed, take a moment to judge how long the run has been opened to the public, how far your skis or board sinks into the surface, and how tight the trees are. From this, make a judgment of the speed at which you should proceed. As you advance, adjust your stance to enable the tips of your equipment to float out of the surface. Not only will this provide more control, but it will also ensure your equipment goes over any downed logs versus under which does not end well.

Aspen Glades at Steamboat

A common mistake in such terrain is using skidding turns and kicking out perpendicular to the fall line of the slope.  In this position, the smallest of rock or stump can easily trip you up and send you tumbling down the hill.   By focusing technique on carving turns, you minimize the catching an edge.  If you do happen to encounter something under the surface in a carved turn, the equipment will tend to track over top of it versus stopping you in your tracks.  While this can cause damage to your gear, it’s far better than a fall.  If you find yourself in a section that is too steep or tight to manage your turns, consider a traverse. Even a few feet to the right or left you might find a more forgiving slope and more space. Always stay proactive in your planning and rhythm through the trees.

Lastly, we can take this opportunity to start the conversation on looking for Avalanche signals.   While the likelihood of slide inbound is minimal given ski patrols assessments and mitigation technique, a glade is a more natural terrain than other sections on the mountain.  Trees wide enough to ski through are wide enough to slide.  While not mandatory, you may want to consider taking an avalanche awareness class at a local ski shop to gain an introduction on stability and consolidation process of snow.  It is possible that you can see fracturing and other avalanche warning signs.  If you have invested in beacon, probe, and shovel, might as well carry them as you progress.  Bottom line, it’s good practice in a controlled environment that will prepare you for bigger adventures down the road.

Hairbag Alley at Vail

While this is a lot to consider, getting out in the trees is fun and under the right conditions rewarding.  So grab a friend, make up some fun bird calls, and learn some new skills along the way.  Ullr has been generous; this year is an excellent chance to progress!  Get off the groomers and explore!

Until next time, pray for snow, celebrate when Ullr Provides!

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